IBS Ivan often sat opposite at breakfast, looking cool and cruel. He had been a man of achievement, he’d told me, often, and a lot. He had risen from vending machine boy to CEO and evolved from pedant to complete shit. And then he’d had kids and challenged them to become good and mighty people until they absolutely fucking hated him.
IBS Ivan’s first born, Ivan, often visited the home. He would pitch up in icy waves of duty and resentment. The old shit would take the young shit to his room to point out his failings. There were no raised voices, no sounds of violence after IBS Ivan’s bowel cancer diagnosis, just the deep chill of silent hate.
One time, they didn’t make it to the room. Instead, IBS Ivan’s bowels won the day and dumped dark matter all over his boy’s sparkling brogues. Old Jack was hobbling to the TV room on maximum zimmer at the time and stopped short. IBS Ivan looked back at his son, eyes as cold and controlling as his bowels were not. Young Ivan didn’t look down as the fluid shot out of his father’s pyjama trousers and took out young Ivan’s tartan socks. What struck me, caught in that vignette, was the silent bonding between father and son. Not a word was spoken, not a hint of affection, embarrassment or emotion shared. There was just the stare that froze the air between them. The boy still hated; the old shit still controlled.
At its heart, whilst a bit of a shapeless mess, such a theme runs through the two hours twenty it takes writer-director David Dobkin to tell the tale of The Judge. Robert Duvall (Joseph Palmer) also shits on Robert Downey Jr. (Hank Palmer), which reminded me of the Ivans. And the hate. Okay, and the brogues, but let’s talk about the film.
High-flying lawyer Hank (“innocent people can’t afford me”) Palmer is forced from the big city back to his rural roots when his Mom dies. There he is belittled by his ferocious old grump of a Dad, Joseph, the local judge. And a pointedly judgy judge he is as well: owning his court room with a cold heart, belittlement and righteous dignity. Unfortunately, one of his early cases has done his decades’ worth of punishment, and is killed in the night by the judge’s car. Bits of him are embedded in it, and the judge remembers nothing…
Guess what happens next? Yup, the best lawyer on earth is heading for the airport when he has to turn back and…is refused by his father, who drags him to see a deeply inexperienced local (Dax Shepard as C.P. Kennedy). C.P. conspires to be so hickishly shite that a first hearing becomes an order to trial…with comedy vomitting outside the courthouse. He is kind of fun, though.
Which is all very sub-Grisham, to be honest, and irrelevant. The film really wants us to enjoy the dance between Duvall and Downey Jr. There is no love lost. Hank twitches with tears and petulance as he is cast out of social family moments, belittled in ways that echo domestic control (feet off the sofa, you), and held at arms’ length as the judge pretty much marches himself to court. Things are a-brewin’.
Hank has two brothers, a large older one who runs a store and carries the hurt of a sportsman’s life destroyed (Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen Palmer) and a syndromic savant cineaste one who obsesses on filming and editing family cine footage like he’s the director’s marker-pen (Jeremy Strong as Dale Palmer). The first is the echo of ancient damage done by Hank – where he went wrong, why his Dad is pissed at him, why why why; the second is God’s own plot device for projecting home video footage when emotions are needed. This is just about tolerable until he projects the aftermath of the accident, caused by Hank, that ruined Glen’s life. Oh, and during the monumental Storm Metaphor that comes to underline Duvall and Downey’s relationship. Cos, you know, just fuck off with the obvious.
But, gosh, the Roberts are good when they let rip. It just isn’t often enough. The storm brings out a lifetime of unsaid things…and the judge has to admit C.P. is shite and he needs his son. But on his terms… The rapprochement is signalled too soon…
The twists and turns of the court hearings are made glorious summer by the wintery presence of Billy Bob Thornton. Sharp-suited and slenderly styled, he declares his intention to get Downey’s Dad imprisoned. And he comes up with video footage that pretty-much proves the old man a liar – albeit one with no memory of doing the murder. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it. He plays evilly with an executive-toy cup thing and…nope, that’s it… The inevitability of what plays out gives his character nothing else to be. I’d expected him to be a counterpoint to the better man Downey is possibly becoming, but Hank so sturdily stays the same smug, dialogue poncer that it doesn’t happen.
And then they get not guilty and guilty. Dobkin eats his cake.
IBS Ivan came in for the last ten minutes of the film, glaring out shards of ice because he’d missed Question Time. I wouldn’t turn it off and rather hoped he’d get a sense of what he’d done to his own son. Unfortunately, the story had finished and the film wouldn’t stop. Ivan stomped off to his loo thinking it was about prison, smugness and dead fishermen…
Of Dobkin’s cake…he has other layers…
Father-son rages, courtroom drama, hicksville vs big city comedy…the film is messy enough before it tries to humanise Downey Jr. by rekindling a teenage romance. Yup – it’s time for women to enter the picture. And just how pre-#metoo is The Judge..? Rekindled by way of the ex-girlfriend’s daughter. Really – that’s how pre-#metoo.
Leighton Meester as the oddly-named Carla gets to do flirty and tonguey with an old Downey Jr. in a scene no actress could possibly resent… Oh no. And if the scene kicks off as icky then hindsight takes it to repugnant. DNA is in such short supply in Carlinville – understand? And that, ladies and gentleman, is why the whole home leaves Wanky Wilhelm to it when Celebrity Love Island comes on.
Vera Farmiga plays Sam, the ex, as warm, funny and a little bit horny. She is underused and more than let down by the script. Sam completely fails to bring out the vulnerable in Hank, but then they went to school at the same time despite an eight-year age gap…. She’s grand as the bar girl who now owns the bar. She calls him on character faults in a deck chair. And…hopes. A waste.
The humanizing also extends to Hank’s actual family. He is verbally vicious with his wife, but we’re asked to believe his kid (Emma Tremblay as Lauren) is some kind of angel: smart, insightful and loving of old tossers be they Downey or Duvall. You can feel the film creaking around to the bastards getting on when she pitches up and shouts cheerily through the door as Downey and Duvall wash shit off their feet. She is the tonal diversion the film doesn’t need.
So, much like the wandering of this review, the film slip-slides like a drunk poet. Bits of it are lovely in isolation (except Downey Jr. flashing his abs and cycling off in his favourite teenage T-shirt – forget the character and resent the actor), and many of them add up to stories in their own right, but the interchange of A, B and Z plots robs the film of a point.
So here’s what old Jack took away from The Judge: family’s are hard. And if you’re the kid of a bastard, no matter his motivation, you’re the kid of a bastard. And wouldn’t it be nice if that old bastard took a look at himself and what he’s done and tried fixing it before his wife’s dead, arse is uncontrollable, and his career-based dignity is shutdown by his forgetful piety. Oh, and being the son of a bastard, read some Psychology 1.01 (Chapter 1: Obvious Shit from 1980s Movieland) and don’t be one yourself.
Young Ivan never got it. I heard he dumped his Dad’s ashes in a sump.
Try it on Amazon Prime…it’s a mess, but, ahhhh, Duvall and Downey Jr… when the stage is theirs, they know how to use it.